My Twitter buddy Benjamin Cheah recently wrote a long Facebook post about the new Beauty and the Beast movie, criticizing it for allegedly portraying 18th-century rural France as more progressive than it actually was. In response, a commenter (who did not get personal or insulting — he argued in good faith) answered with a common objection I’ve seen to such critiques:
If a story has some fantastical concept like magic or dragons, then there is no reason that it cannot have women in traditionally male roles, non-Europeans in large numbers, or any other feature of 21st-century Western democracies. Or, to shorten it, “if magic, then modernity.”
On its face, the assertion is reasonable — authors can build whatever setting they want, whether or not it lines up with real history. However, this usually comes on the heels of a bigotry accusation. The targeted writer is implicitly or explicitly told to get with the program and write more “inclusive” work or risk being tarnished as hateful. It’s not enough that fantasy can have these elements — according to the accusers, fantasy written today must have these elements or something is wrong with the writer as a person.
Of course, this is not the case.
Before I make my case, I will say that I am not calling authors of modernized fantasy bad, evil, or hateful, and I am not demanding that such works be suppressed. Those works have their audiences and will find their auduences. I am merely critiquing an attitude.
First off, fantasy does not have to include every possible unrealistic scenario. Just as one can bemoan the lack of 21st century social mores, one can also bemoan the lack of 21st century technology; if there can be dragons, then by God there should be nuclear missiles and combat drones (and if you don’t write that, you’re a Luddite who wants us all to live in caves.) Just because a writer constructs a world a certain way to explore certain themes doesn’t mean they’re against exploring other themes, or want to stamp such explorations out. It’s up to authors themselves to write the stories they want.
Second, the largest markets for fiction in general are in rich Western democracies, and this goes double for fantasy fiction, especially if the country speaks English as its primary language. In these countries, a belief in social equality is the dominant norm; there is no appetite for birth-defined social ranks like one would find in typical fantasy novels. If anyone so much as thinks someone is being treated “unequally,” everyone from government officials to concerned citizens will move heaven and earth to support the victim and punish the offender. Said offender will often assert that he treats others equally himself; this may or may not quell the shaming or lighten the punishments. Whatever the actual social conditions, the vast majority of people in Western democracies believe in the concept of social equality and equal justice.
Fantasy, however, often presents social structures that deviate from this modern norm, usually with a royal house and an aristocracy. Distinctly non-modern mores like this give fantasy novels an alien and escapist feel, breaking any connection with the reader’s present reality (likewise, a lack of modern technology does the same.) Indeed, the entire point of fantasy is to present a world far different from the one inhabited by the reader, and depicting a reactionary culture is one way to do that (though by no means the only way.)
Finally — and this is most important — the “if magic, then modernity” critique is often given in the form of a command, with the intention of bringing all creative work under its sway. Whether it is comic books, television, video games, or any other creative medium, all must conform to a template approved by the accusers — and any deviation is slammed as “hate.” Despite the accusers’ call for “diversity,” they want to make everything look, act, and feel exactly the same, with all the same assumptions and ideas. Imagination and possibility is to be replaced by fear and control. A hunger to rule over others consumes them and drives them to bully everyone they could into line. Even the realms of the fantastic have to fit the quotas set out in the five-year plan. Nothing less than total dominion will satisfy them.
In fantasy, the only thing one has to do is tell a story from the heart. Whatever form it takes, whatever themes it explores, one does not need permission from hypocritical scolds and mad hecklers to create. Just let the words flow.
The words in my novella Sword & Flower flowed from my keyboard, and you can buy it below.